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July 2001: Silver Wedding in Alaska

Part 2 - Return to Vancouver Island

Tuesday 10th July

Again an early start in our next port of call Seward. This is the main port for people joining or leaving cruises that only go one way. It is about 3 hours drive from Anchorage, the main northern airport of Alaska. Seward was also affected by the 1964 earthquake and tsunamis which destroyed most of Seward’s waterfront industries.

We decided that sitting on a coach for 6 hours to visit a large town was not in the spirit of our holiday, so we boarded a coach for a 90 minute drive, through wonderful countryside, to Portage Glacier and the Kenai Mountains. We were able to spend time in the museum before taking a small boat to the end of the lake to get a close up view of Portage Glacier. This glacier was one of the original routes for explorers to get across the Kenai Mountains. We had lunch in the restaurant before boarding the coach back to Seward.

 

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Portage Glacier (the overland route to Anchorage)
Petrified forest (the trees were killed and preserved by the salt water around their roots after an earthquake lowered the land level)

However on the way back the driver decided we had plenty of time to visit a wildlife sanctuary which specialises in rehabilitating wild animals before setting them free in the wild again. They had recently homed 2 bear cubs, found clinging to their dead mother, which unfortunately will not be able to be set free in the wild as they have no-one to show them how to hunt for food etc. We saw a very impressive range of native animals, although had they not been injured would not have been at the sanctuary.

 

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Elk
Spotted Deer
Bear up a tree
Moose
Buffalo

Plenty of time to wander round Seward and to visit the Alaska Sea life Centre. It is used to educate the public, as well as research and rehabilitation of marine birds, sea lions and harbour seals. One of the sea lions seemed particularly clever; whenever anyone came close to the tank he would dive down close to his side of the glass and almost “talk” to you. We decided to buy our anniversary present from the children in the gift shop and, being sensible about how much we could carry home on the plane, decided to arrange delivery to our home address in the U.K. Unfortunately the carriers were not careful enough and it reached us in three pieces so we didn't get to keep it.

 

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Friendly seal at the sea-life centre
Puffins swimming underwater at great speed

We had a most enjoyable day visiting Seward and the surrounding countryside was exhausting so we were very glad to see from the ships daily paper that Wednesday would be spent at sea, giving us time to relax and gather our strength for the last few days of our holiday.

 

Wednesday 11th July

It could have been a very busy day today, lots of lectures and workshops but we decided that one lecture was enough, the Potlatch and its history. Allan took advantage of the tour of the ship’s navigational bridge and also learnt a lot about how all the steam created by the boilers is used throughout the ship, not just for powering the engines but also for steaming the vegetables and heating the hot-water supply. SS Universal Explorer was the last American steamship still cruising (she ceased operations in 2003)

The day was rounded off by the Costume Parade after dinner. Mainly American children, but some adults who’d either brought their costumes with them or were clever enough to make them whilst on board!

Thursday 12th July

Early morning we take aboard Park Rangers for our day in Glacier Bay, part of the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. The Rangers help us appreciate the wildlife that we see, together with pointing out all the interesting natural features. The Bay, about 70 miles long and 2 ½ to 10 miles wide, was filled with ice 5,000ft thick as recently as 200 years ago. We particularly love it as it reminds us very much of the Norwegian Fjords. We pass close to the shore to see a Brown Bear on the beach, even at the distance we are it looks large.

 

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The Marjorie Glacier
Muir Inlet
Brown Bear on the shore
Marjorie Glacier calving

The day is spent cruising slowly through the Bay, enjoying the peace and quiet until we reach Marjorie Glacier at the end. The peace and quiet is shattered as the Glacier is constantly calving, the noise very loud. Unlike our visit to Hubbard Glacier earlier we are unable to anchor as the ice is constantly flowing and we don’t want to get stuck! The wave from each calving lifts the ship high in the air as pieces of ice the size of a block of flats break off and fall into the sea. Also as the environment in this area is so fragile we cannot have a barbeque on the back deck as even a small amount of heat could upset the balance unnaturally. Being a small ship we are able to go a lot further into the Bay than the very large cruise ships that usually ply the coast of Alaska.

After such a beautiful and peaceful day the only way to round it off was with a few more drinks in our favourite bar, listening to the playing and singing of Bree and chatting with friends, before falling into bed.

Friday 13th July

Today we anchor off Sitka and use the Ship’s tenders to reach shore. As our tour doesn’t start until 1.30 p.m. we have plenty of time to wander round the town, we needed to find the library to use the internet – the ships didn’t work. Outside the library we found a wonderful piece of artwork – a very large native canoe “Everybody’s Canoe”, together with various other sculptures throughout the town. We walk past many of the sights to reach Sitka National Historic Park with a very large collection of Totem Poles. After a very short walk around the Park we visited St Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, reminding all that Russia ruled Alaska before selling it to America.

 

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The Russian Cathedral at Sitka
Whale Sculpture at Sitka
Everybody's Canoe - sculpture at Sitka

During the afternoon we took a “Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest” excursion. The boat we were on was small, not as small as the one we used in Juneau, to go out into the bay to look for Sea Otters. They are very timid animals and the boat turned its engine off before getting too close so not to frighten them off. We also saw bald eagles, one almost not making it back to land after taking a salmon from the sea, and seals. Then word came through the Captain’s radio – a Grey Whale was sighted a little further out to sea. Off we went in search of this Whale – an unexpected bonus. Just as we were about to turn back the radio crackled into life again with the message that a Humpback Whale was in the area. Sure enough a few minutes later, with several more small boats in the vicinity, the Humpback breached beside us. According to the rules boats are not meant to be within 100 yards of wild animals, however we don’t think this Whale had read the rules. For the next half hour he breached at least 20 times, and we never knew which side of the boat he would appear next. He seemed to be playing with us but then just vanished beneath the water and the tell-tale water spout showed him swimming out to sea again. What a magnificent sight, even the ranger on the boat said she had never seen anything like it before.

If we have an overriding memory of Alaska it has to be the Humpback Whale.

 

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Bald Eagle
Sea Otters
Grey Whale
Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale

Saturday 14th July

This morning the Universe Explorer docks in Ketchikan and the locals are very pleased to see us. The population of the town is about 1000, but when the very large cruise ships dock, and there can be up to 3 at once each carrying about 2000 passengers, the visitor population exceeds the local population by rather a lot! However the locals of Ketchikan have a wry sense of humour, saying the native bird is the mosquito, and having a Liquid Sun Gauge. During the first 6 months of the year they had only had about 20 days of sunshine.

During the morning we took a guided tour to the “Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery & Eagle Centre” where we saw the young salmon being reared before being released into the sea, and the Eagle Rehabilitation Centre. Next door is the Totem Heritage Centre, a museum giving the history of the totem pole, together with a display of art and artefacts from native culture. We used the coach to take us back to the centre of town where we spent a couple of very enjoyable hours window shopping and visiting Creek Street and Dolly’s House. Dolly arrived in Ketchikan in 1914 at the age of 26 and until her death in the early 50’s kept the local gentlemen, sailors and fishermen happy with the help of her girls. Her house is now a museum offering a look into her life and times.

 

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The Liquid Sun guage at Ketchikan
Debbie being eaten by a Polar Bear
Creek Street
Dolly's House
Inside Dolly's House

The afternoon saw us travelling ten miles north of Ketchikan to the “Totem Bight Historical Site”. The site has more than a dozen totem poles together with Tribal Clan House. To reach the Totem poles you have to walk through a rain forest, most peculiar seeing the latitude north we are, but the weather conditions in Ketchikan make it ideal for this form of environment.

 

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The Totem Pole museum
A hemlock tree growing in the host stump of a dead cedar tree in the rain forest
Totem Pole (in Totem Bight)
The Long House in Totem Bight (like Chief Shakes House in Wrangell it was designed to be dismantled and taken to the next destination, leaving just the corner posts behind)
Logging on the river near Ketchikan

After returning to town we had a little time to shop for a souvenir - a native carving of a Thunderbird, which in the Tlingit mythology makes the thunder by flapping its wings and makes the lightning by blinking its eyes -  before returning to the ship for dinner and the Passenger and Staff Talent Show.

Sunday 15th July

Another day at sea to take stock and start thinking about packing to go home. During the afternoon the Maitre D, an Italian, demonstrated various different ways of cooking pasta, most unusual and fun.

This evening we had the Farewell Cocktail Party followed by the Captain’s Farewell Dinner. Later we spent the evening listening to Bree for the last time.

Monday 16th July

We are due to arrive in Victoria on Vancouver Island mid morning. Everyone seems to be walking around the ship looking lost. Our last excursion takes us to the town of Chemainus. The town owed its prosperity to logging, but during the early 90’s this industry tapered off and the town was in danger of becoming a ghost town. However the town elders decided to change direction and let the town’s prosperity rely on tourism. They found local and native artists to paint giant murals round the town, depicting the history of Chemainus, laid on a little train to take people round the town and became a full blown tourist centre. On the way back to Victoria we visited a vineyard to see how wine is made and to try the various wines made here. At present no wines made on Vancouver Island can be exported, you can only buy at the “farm gate”, and so we must wait to see if and when we can buy some very pleasant wine in the U.K.

 

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'Native Heritage' mural at Chemainus
'Hing Hong Store' mural at Chemainus (on the wall opposite the Hing Hong Store, showing how it looked 75 years ago)
'Fallers' mural at Chemainus (on the fire station, showing the ancient art of the lumberjack)
Logging at Chemainus

Dinner was a very subdued affair, everyone thinking about leaving tomorrow and exchanging addresses and e-mail details and promising to keep in touch. After the last of the packing we spent the evening relaxing, only 2 bars open tonight as most of the staff has been given the night off.

Tuesday 17th July

We are due to start disembarkation about 8.15 a.m., scurry around paying the bill, last minute packing and generally seeing to things we hadn’t done before. Bye Bye ship and thank you for a wonderful time.

The coach takes us straight to the airport for our long flight back to Heathrow and maybe a return to normal.

When we booked the holiday we were not too sure about an American ship, but most of the people we socialised with were friendly, knowledgeable and interesting. Any children on the ship were rarely seen as the entertainment staff kept them occupied all the time we were on the ship, the only time we had problems with children was on the excursions!, some of the adults we could have done without as well! The crew and staff were helpful and friendly and we would certainly book another holiday on the Universe Explorer, part of the World Explorer Cruises – an Adventure for the Heart, Mind and Soul.

 

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